Posted in Books

Book Betrayals: A List of Past Hurts, pt. 5

While making my last few lists, I realized I’d had a pretty good life. The bulk of my book betrayals occurred after I turned 18; I couldn’t recall any hurtful childhood reads.

Then I remembered.

There were betrayals, all right.

And they started early.

 

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I was 6 when the school librarians tricked me.

“Hi, Lauren,” they said as I approached the checkout counter. “You like horses, right?”

I looked down at the stack of Saddle Club and Marguerite Henry books in my arms. “Obviously” felt like an overstatement.

They slid a slim volume across the counter and smiled. “Then you’ll love this book.”

Image result for riding freedom pam munoz ryan

The librarians knew I only read horse literature, a genre I clung to until I turned 10. We’re not talking horse-adjacent literature – the horse had to play a large role or I lost interest. (Think The Horse and His Boy.)

Call me paranoid, but my teachers must have been in talks with the library to get me to read more “substantial” stories. They tricked me the only way they knew how: by bribing me with horses.

I never saw it coming.

Three revelations about this story:

  • The plot focuses on the life of Charlotte (later called Charley) Parkhurst
  • Besides being a metaphor, the title refers to Charley’s favorite childhood horse
  • The horse dies in the first 20 pages

Thus begins Charley Parkhurst’s life as a runaway and the last time a specific horse is mentioned in this book.

I was too young for symbolism. All I felt was horror.

And outrage.

Not only was the horse DEAD, I’d wasted my time reading about a boring REAL person who disguised herself as a MAN for some reason??

“How did you like the book?” the librarians asked on my next trip.

“HATED it,” I griped as I checked out another Saddle Club, little knowing how my interest in trans characters would skyrocket in the years to come.

I could tell my librarians weren’t sorry; they thought they’d done me a favor.

Maybe they had.

 

Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder

Many of these betrayals were born out of misunderstandings.

Careful reader that I am, I believed this book would take place during the Civil War, an impression not helped by my classmates (who thought the same thing) and my eighth-grade teacher (who deliberately fueled those misconceptions.)

Looking back, I think our teacher felt insecure about her choice of book and needed any encouragement, genuine or manufactured.

She was right to be uneasy.

Image result for shades of gray carolyn reeder
Starring Alfred E. Neuman

The story does NOT take place during the Civil War, automatically lessening the tension. Think of how good this book COULD have been if Southern-sympathizer Will moved in with his abolitionist uncle DURING THE WAR! Then, as the conflict raged on, Will would have to reconcile his limited view of freedom with the ethics of slavery.

Unconcerned with notions of “stakes” or “plot,” author Carolyn Reeder set her story after the Civil War. The bulk of the plot focuses on Will’s struggles with chores (“WHY CAN’T SLAVES JUST DO THEM FOR ME?”), his crush on his cousin (…ew?), and his battle with local bullies.

His moral conversion takes place in a series of preachy conversations with his uncle Jed. Eventually, Jed convinces Will that Slavery is Bad, Freedom is Good, and sometimes Courage is needed for Hard Things. Inspired, Will does his chores and stands up to his tormentors.

Imagine if Will’s conversion had had an impact on his actions ASIDE from the requisite bully defeat.

I was 14 when my teacher forced us to read this. I’d been in school long enough to learn that Slavery is Bad. The book tried to convince us of this obvious fact without addressing the historical nuances.

When the class rebelled and began trash-talking this book, our teacher lost it. “THIS IS AWARD-WINNING LITERATURE!” she screamed.

She’s right: this trash won awards for telling an anti-bullying story with the moral “Slavery is Bad.”

I now know where my cynicism comes from.

 

The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle

Y’all remember this book? No? Good, because I’m about to trash it ALL OVER AGAIN.

As always, the cover drew me in.

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I noticed my friend Amby reading this book during math class (in the front row, no less!) She glared when I reached out to touch the shiny cover.

had to know what it was about. “Amby!” I shoutwhispered. “What’s it about!?”

Rolling her eyes, Amby handed me the book.

I scanned the details, attention snagging on the words “fast-paced science-action thriller.” “Can I borrow this?”

For reasons I will never understand, Amby agreed. I read the first few chapters in awed silence. Protagonist Martin and his family lived under a dome with simulated weather. Instead of favoring natural birth, parents genetically engineered children. Instead of actual pets, people owned robotic dogs.

This, I thought, had never been attempted in all of fiction. (I was 14.)

After the initial set-up, a stranger appeared under the dome, promising to take the genius children to a “special school.” After discovering no such school existed, Martin and his robot dog Chip left the dome to rescue his sister.

The rest of the novel read like a survivalist manual.

“Protagonist must brave elements” is one of my least favorite tropes. During elementary school, I opted out of reading “Hatchet,” “Guts,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and any other boy-oriented adventure novel published between 1950 and 2005. I don’t want to read an entire book about a character’s struggle to stay warm during harsh mountain winters.

The bulk of The Sky Inside follows Martin as he hoofs it outside (odd, considering the title.) He might have encountered genuine stakes at some point, but I only remember him falling down hills and talking to his robot dog.

Good gravy, that last part.

In its first act, the musical Murder for Two introduces a mute, invisible cop named Lou. The other characters interact with Lou, joking that if it wasn’t for him, they’d be talking to themselves.

Martin’s robodog Chip serves the same function without the humor brought by Lou. Any thought Martin has, he directs at Chip. “Gee, boy, why hasn’t the sun gone down?” “Golly, Chip, it sure is cold out here!”

I’d guess Clare B. Dunkle wanted to avoid writing “he thought to himself” over and over again, yet having Martin talk to a dog doesn’t feel any more natural than hearing Martin’s inner monologue. In fact, I’d rather Martin talk to himself than have inane, one-sided conversations WITH HIS ROBOTIC DOG.

Both Martin and I survived this reading experience, but it tarnished my view of sci-fi forever.

 

Forever Princess by Meg Cabot

My favorite book in The Princess Diaries series is Princess Mia.

In the series’ penultimate book, Mia battles depression, copes with a breakup, reconciles with her enemies, loses a friend, and upends her country’s government.

I remember bursting with hope when I finished the book. I’d never been more invested in Mia’s struggles or felt so proud of what she’d accomplished. It was the perfect end to a long journey.

Then the final book of the series came out.

Image result for forever princess

Forever Princess isn’t awful, if my umpteen rereads are any indication. It has all the jokes and drama you’d expect from a Princess Diaries novel. I made my peace with this ending a long time ago.

I wasn’t so understanding when it first came out.

Where do I even begin? To parse out my feelings on Forever Princess is to unravel my psyche.

Let’s liken it to Winter to simplify things: like other series finales, Forever Princess is too happy. No bittersweetness here; the final book is all fluff with every plot line ending happily.

In some ways, this isn’t surprising: the reason I read the series is for its light-hearted tone.

After the previous two books, however, the fluffy optimism comes as a shock.

Mia deals with more complex issues as she grows older, as seen in books 8 and 9, which deal openly with heartbreak and mental illness. The realism in these books makes Forever Princess feel all the more jarring.

Most disappointing to me was Meg Cabot’s handling of the romance.

Suffice it to say Michael Moscovitz was never my perfect Prince Charming. The longer the series went on, the less I liked him. Meg Cabot argues for the “opposites attract” theory of romance, claiming that Mia and Michael’s lack of common traits makes them a perfect pair. Personally, I prefer couples that have more in common (which is why I shipped Mia and JP.)

Michael also makes some choices regarding his relationship with Mia that I found unforgivable at ages 14, 15, and 16.

At best, Michael is a clueless dud. At worst, he’s kind of a tool.

Luckily, there’s a way to fix that!

By book 9, Meg Cabot had broken up her beloved couple and paired Mia with theater geek John Paul “J.P.” Reynolds-Abernathy, another nice, if clueless, love interest who at least treated Mia well.

To make Michael the more suitable option, Cabot transformed J.P. from a rebound into a dastardly villain. Watch as he expertly manipulates everyone around him! Witness him booking a hotel room without Mia’s knowledge! Feel his arrogance as he climbs the stairs to accept his Prom King crown! MWAHAHAHA! It’s a full-on Prince Hans situation.

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“REMEMBER ME?”

To contrast with his younger persona, Michael became buff, rich, and famous, and therefore more suitable for reasons that contradicted the series’ “Be Yourself” moral.

I’m not as anti-Michael as I was in 2009. Still, I’m unconvinced Michael is Mia’s perfect prince, especially as Mia was so anxious during the bulk of their relationship. I was more interested in seeing Michael get his comeuppance for the way he treated Mia, or SOMETHING aside from the “love covers everything” approach to their reunion romance.

At the time, Mia and I were both graduating from high school and dealing with all the emotions that come with change. After following Mia’s adventures for years, I watched my favorite princess earn a “majorly happy ending.”

I didn’t want a happy ending – I wanted a fresh start.

Almost a decade later, it still hurts to see my path diverge from Mia’s. I go back and reread the series from time to time to experience that same giddy, fizzy feeling I felt when I first read these books, but it’s not the same.

Princess Mia gave me the shot of hope I needed as an 18-year-old soon-to-be graduate. Peaceful as I pretend to be, part of me wishes Forever Princess never happened.

Posted in Books

Book Betrayals: A List of Past Hurts, pt. 1

When it comes to books, I am a cheapskate.

In this area of my life, I value quantity over quality, blowing my budget on thrifty, vaguely-interesting paperbacks rather than the one or two pricey hardbacks I really want. Why bother when I’m going to switch them out for cheaper, less bulky, better-looking copies in six months?

hardcover
Lame…
paperback
GREAT!

If I feel I can’t live without a book, I’ll splurge. Sometimes I’m too impatient to wait for the paperback release; other times I buy on impulse, swayed by a perfect plot summary or a pretty cover.

When these books disappoint, it’s agony. It feels as bad as a breakup; all that effort and emotional energy for nothing. WE COULD HAVE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, AND YOU RUINED IT.

Though this isn’t a complete list of past offenders, be warned: these books broke my heart.

 

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

The fact that I talked this book up to my friends before I read it makes the the memory of this purchase especially embarrassing.

I bought what sounded like a female-led remake of “A Horse and His Boy” with foreign fugitives, fleshed-out romance, magical mounts, and GUNSLINGERS. Make no mistake: throw ANY of those elements in a book and I’ll whip out my debit card. Add all four and you find me saying things like, “I feel like this book was written for me!” to my skeptical friends.

As always, the cover played a big part in my decision. In my heart of hearts, I prefer pretty books. And LOOK AT THIS THING.

Image result for rebel of the sands
This cover is a work of art.

(Author’s note: Free punch in the face to anyone who smugly comments, “That’s why they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!'” No one wants to read a $2.00 copy of Pride and Prejudice; Barnes and Nobles makes special editions for a reason.)

I gave up after 80 pages. I didn’t even make it to the horse. (I don’t think. See? I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER.)

I didn’t enjoy the world or the characters, and I DEFINITELY didn’t appreciate the rushed romance with a heavy helping of denial.

A year later, I saw this book on Barnes and Nobles overstock table for $6. No one should have to pay that much for this letdown.

 

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

I find it harder and harder to like YA romances.

I had a heartbreaking moment the other day when I realized one of my all-time favorite ships isn’t healthy. I’ve become a more moderate shipper and I don’t like how it feels.

All that to say I hated the romance in this book.

Image result for star touched queen
Another tragic case of cover-judging.

The protagonist ends up married to a mysterious man who claims they were a couple in a past life. Whenever she asks for details, he says, “Just trust me.” RED FLAG #1.

The guy gets way too intimate way too fast and repeats the same justification: “No, we used to be in love! Trust me! I’m not a bad guy!” RED FLAG #2.

Nothing he did showed care for the protagonist. She spent the bulk of the novel confused, avoiding his touch and flowery sentiments. Yet he never apologized or agreed to take it slow. He practically begged her to sleep with him with the argument that he can’t help it – he loves her too much. RED FLAG #3.

Halfway in, I decided he was really the villain. The narrative purposefully muddied the waters, casting this creepo in a suspicious light.

I wish the author had followed through.

Listen, love interests: The best justifications and purest feelings don’t excuse overwhelming your partner. If she feels uncomfortable or confused, BACK OFF.

The creepy persistence paired with self-centered reasoning turned me off this series.

I won’t be picking up a sequel, no matter how pretty the cover.

 

As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Fine, let’s get this cover out of the way:

Image result for as you wish chelsea sedoti
Ugh. Perfection.

Not only is the cover WONDERFUL, this book was released around my birthday; looking at it felt like a celebration.

loved Chelsea Sedoti’s first novel, the deeply-weird-yet-emotionally-affecting The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett. When I heard she’d written a follow-up, I was immediately on board.

I have nothing good to say about this book. I read it while on vacation and found myself becoming more and more disillusioned.

Compared to Hawthorn Creely from Lizzie Lovett, this protagonist had nothing going for him. I can’t even remember his name. Connor, maybe? I don’t often notice when authors write from an opposite-sex POV, but Sedoti’s writing of Connor felt particularly self-conscious, i.e., “Yo, I’m a dude, this is how dudes think.”

If I had to sum up the plot, it would be “Brainwashed town keeps magical secret on orders from power-mad mayor and everyone learns a lesson at the end.”

That sounds more like a TV episode I’ve seen 1000 times than a compelling idea for a novel.

This concept had so many possibilities and Sedoti chose to tell a standard fable. Too bad.

 

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

I haven’t thrown enough shade at this novel.

I love alternate histories. I find speculative fiction fascinating because it examines extremes. I don’t remember the exact plot of this book, but I remember the ban on caffeine being part of a religious revival. The ban results in a new Prohibition era with Mafia members smuggling chocolate and opening coffee shops around the city.

Also, a girl becomes a crime boss, which is in no way a power fantasy of mine.

Image result for gabrielle zevin all these things
Also, the title is a Killers reference.

The first third of this book was solid, with a great set-up, interesting characters, and the promise of romance.

I hate, hate, HATE when an author rushes a potential romance. The star-crossed, slow-burn sexual tension ramped up to true love way too early, shunting aside the more interesting crime plot.

AUTHORS! Stop using your plots as elaborate vehicles for more typical fare! ENOUGH WITH THE FALSE ADVERTISING.

I wouldn’t have been bothered if this had a been a romance/crime combo. Had both parts been equal, I could have maintained my interest. But the crime plot became an afterthought, the stakes plummeted, and the leads wasted their time on dramatics.

In an extra disappointing twist, I love (er, loved) Gabrielle Zevin’s work. In the past, she’s delivered high concept character studies. I took her name on the cover as a sign of quality.

This is why I have trust issues.

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Get out of here with your stupid cover and your stupid circus, you worthless, worthless book.

Of all the books on this list, this one makes the angriest.

I love the hell out of magical realism, okay? Magic and romance and circuses and book covers inspired by The White Stripes are my favorite things.

Image result for night circus
At least they WERE.

I saw this book everywhere for TWO. YEARS.

Every time I went to Target, I glimpsed it on the shelf.

Every time I turned around, it had won another award.

Every encounter increased my desire to read it.

Finally, I got it.

And…nothing happened.

I felt…nothing.

NOTHING.

LIKE MORALES IN HER ACTING CLASS.

I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED BY THE CHARACTERS AND INVESTED IN THEIR LOVE BUT ALL I FELT WAS EMPTINESS AND RAGE.

IT REALLY MADE ME BURN.

My low-level annoyance didn’t escalate to blinding anger until the climax.

First of all, I COULD NOT understand what was going on. It felt like hearing a bomb go off without being sure it was a bomb. The other characters kept reacting as if to tragedy without ever revealing what had happened. I felt panicked, scouring for clues and not finding any. Something big had happened in the climax; I just didn’t know what or why or how.

Then one of the characters, a creepy redheaded child (let’s call him Pickle), sat down and preached the theme of the novel to me. Nothing Pickle described matched the events I’d witnessed. WERE WE READING THE SAME BOOK, PICKLE?

(I want to say this is the moment I turned against ensemble casts.)

AND YOU, ERIN MORGENSTERN: YOU DON’T JUST PICK A THEME OUT OF THE BLUE. YOUR ENDING HAS TO MATCH WHAT CAME BEFORE.

I remember throwing this book across the room during Thanksgiving dinner.

Forget this book. Forget the glowing reviews. Forget its best-seller status. I curse this story and all its success. MAY YOU NEVER KNOW TRUE LOVE OR FRIENDSHIP.

 

To be continued…